How One Country Emerged From the Arab Spring With a Democratic State

How One Country Emerged From the Arab Spring With a Democratic State

How One Country Emerged From the Arab Spring With a Democratic State

In Tunisia, secularists and Islamists produced a landmark constitution—without Western interference.


Tunisians have shattered the dogma that citizens of the Arab world must either accept a secular authoritarian status quo or submit to Islamist authoritarian rule.

When Tunisians rose up in peaceful protest from December 2010 to January 2011 to oust former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, they inspired Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians to take to the streets against their own autocratic leaders. None of the uprisings in any of those countries have ended in anything resembling democracy. Even in Egypt, the country whose path has most closely followed Tunisia’s, the secular/Islamist divide has led to bloodshed and trauma.

But in Tunisia, politicians with vastly different agendas managed to come together to approve a new constitution, with 200 out of 216 votes, on January 26.

“To avoid violence, Islamists should be integrated into the political system. The policy of eliminating and ignoring the Other has never been effective,” says Mohamed Bennour, a spokesman for the social-democratic Ettakatol party, which went into coalition with the Islamists. “A large part of [the Islamist party] Ennahda rejects the Other, but so do many members of the secularist parties.”

The new Constitution is not secularist, but neither does it impose an Islamist state. It combines many of the progressive values of the previous regime with more democratic rights and freedoms. The right to free healthcare and free education is guaranteed. Equality between the sexes is preserved; the legal system will not be derived from Sharia; torture is outlawed; and there’s a greater separation of powers than in the past. As far as religion is concerned, the Constitution remains ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, but that was the price of consensus. Many battles have been left to fight another day.

“I think so far we succeeded to find this common ground between Islamists and secularists,” says Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda party. “We have to look for a marriage between the two models.”

The birth of Tunisia’s democratic republic was all the more symbolic in that it occurred in the very same week that Egypt lurched ever further into military dictatorship, with the army giving its blessing to Field Marshal Abdul-Fatteh el-Sisi’s likely presidential bid.

“I think this sends a very powerful message,” says Rory McCarthy, a doctoral candidate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, regarding the new Constitution. McCarthy, who is researching Islamist activism in Tunisia, adds: “Particularly when violence and instability have gripped the other Arab Spring countries.”

Tunisia’s exceptional success is at least partly attributable to the fact that it has never drawn the same degree of attention from the outside world as most other countries in the region. While the uprisings in Libya and Syria were quickly internationalized, Tunisia’s uprising and subsequent political transition have been overwhelmingly organic. The small North African nation has neither vast amounts of oil or gas, nor a shared border with Israel. Multinational oil executives were not working behind the scenes to better mold the contours of the new republic to suit their own interests. “I think the West has shown incredible double standards in the way it’s said it has tried to promote democracy in the Middle East,” McCarthy observes.

* * *

Two other significant factors easing Tunisia’s metamorphosis to democracy have been its deep history of progressivism and its strong institutions. Though the founder of the post-independence republic, President Habib Bourguiba, was no democrat, his development model allowed for the emergence of a sizable educated middle class that is arguably one of the preconditions for democracy. Women’s rights likewise took a great leap forward with Bourguiba’s 1956 Code of Personal Status, and those gains have been consolidated this time around, with some additions. For example, gender parity in Parliament is enshrined in the new Constitution, meaning Tunisian women—conservatives and liberals alike—will continue to play a larger role in political life than in most Western countries.

Bourguiba also had the foresight to keep the military small and well away from politics, a tradition that has been mostly respected. While Egyptian citizens have been conditioned to regard the military as their savior, Tunisians praised their army for its neutrality in the chaos of early 2011.

Tunisia broke decisively with the strongman-led police state of the country’s past in large part thanks to the work of the civilian commission that drafted the road map for the first stage of the transition. Political scientist Alfred Stepan of Columbia University has described the 2011 commission led by legal expert Yadh Ben Achour as “one of the most effective consensus-building bodies in the history of ‘crafted’ democratic transitions.”

* * *

The transition has not been without serious, even wrenching tensions. When two Tunisian secularist parties agreed to an alliance with the Ennahda party after the October 2011 elections for Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly, many denounced them as traitors. The troika brought together Ennahda, which had won just over 40 percent of the seats, with Mustafar Ben Jaafar’s Ettakatol party and the Congress Party for the Republic (CPR), founded by Moncef Marzouki. What followed were two of the most politically jarring years in Tunisia’s post-independence history.

While the Ennaha party was able to retain all of its MPs, its coalition partners shed members frustrated by the subordinate role their parties played within the alliance. The CPR started with twenty-nine MPs; today it has only eleven. The Ettakatol party fared slightly better, losing seven out of twenty seats.

The much-maligned troika finally had its moment in the sun on January 27, when outgoing Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, a member of the Ennahda party, was joined by his secularist allies, Speaker Ben Jaafar and President Marzouki, to put their three signatures to the new Constitution.

The mood in the Assembly was one of shared victory. After more than two years of conflict, frustration and sometimes ridiculous moments, the Assembly finally had something to be proud of. Marzouki, who has often been derided for his political awkwardness, was looking particularly cheerful as he gave the V-for-victory sign after signing.

“Those who called us traitors are in the process of reconsidering their analysis,” Bennour says. He notes that joining the alliance was a difficult choice, but it has been crucial to “saving democracy,” in his words, paving the way for a consensus by helping keep dialogue open. At the same time, the troika’s political opponents played an undeniable role in shaping the final document, waging a lengthy power struggle to win major concessions.

“The troika is finished—it’s a mess,” says Mongi Rahoui, head of the leftist Popular Front. Like many secularists, he criticizes the troika for using the Ben Ali–era system of patronage to its own advantage rather than reforming it. There were many accusations of interference in the judiciary; magistrates protested an attempt by Ennahda MPs to pass legislation they perceived as undermining judicial independence. The opposition argued that the government was firing regional governors to replace them with appointees based on their loyalty to the movement, just as Ben Ali had done.

The troika also mishandled the ongoing social unrest in the volatile marginalized regions, with key figures in the Ennahda party accusing union leaders and leftist activists of manipulating strikes and protests to wage what they disparaged as a “counterrevolution.” Tensions were high throughout 2012, rising even more after security forces violently suppressed protests over social injustice in the northern town of Siliana in November 2012.

The anti-government anger erupted after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a grassroots leader and lawyer, on February 6, 2013, outside his home in Tunis. A radical secular leftist, Belaid had been a fierce critic of the Islamists and was at the forefront of the uprising against Ben Ali. The killing led to some of the biggest nationwide protests in the country’s history, with demonstrators calling on the troika to step down.

As a result, the first Ennahda prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, did resign. When the party’s Ali Larayedh, who had been interior minister in Jebali’s government, became the new prime minister, it was perceived as a further provocation by many in the opposition. Larayedh had clashed publicly with Belaid in the months leading up to his death and was seen as having been responsible for the violence in Siliana.

* * *

An even deeper political crisis was triggered by a second assassination on July 25, 2013, this time of opposition MP and Arab nationalist Mohamed Brahmi. The troika, the opposition argued, was clinging to power that it no longer legitimately held. The Ennahda party, meanwhile, heavily influenced by the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, derided the protest movement as a plot to force it from office.

But Rahoui, one of the most outspoken secularist MPs, explains that the opposition was able to win important concessions in the Constitution only thanks to its decision to take the battle outside the Assembly. The final version was improved in several respects compared with a draft from June 2013, he says: judicial independence and freedom of speech were reinforced; accusing someone of apostasy was outlawed; and changes were made to the structure of the constitutional court. “It’s true that the power was tilted in favor of the fundamentalists, but the democratic forces were able to unite, little by little,” Rahoui says. “We were able to change the Constitution to one that reflects the diversity of Tunisian society and is an expression of Tunisia’s pluralism.”

* * *

Today, excitement over the constitution is tempered by economic hardship. Newly acquired political freedoms are widely perceived as having come at the price of economic stability and security. Unemployment has risen from 13 percent in 2011 to 15.7 percent by late 2013, and ordinary Tunisians are also hurting from rising food prices. “Tunisia is in a grave crisis, and the Constituent Assembly is one of the causes,” says Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as interim prime minister in the months leading up to the 2011 elections. Essebsi argues that the Islamists’ coalition partners failed to use their full clout to make the Ennahda party stay within the limitations of the mandate it had won.

But others stress the ground that Ennahda has been willing to cede—even when faced with resistance from its own base. Ghannouchi, the Islamist leader, is credited with having overcome opposition within his own movement to the process of national dialogue. “Now the vast majority of Ennahda are satisfied with the concessions made by the leaders of Ennahda, but in the beginning this satisfaction was not very widespread,” Ghannouchi says. The Ennahda leader’s political astuteness allowed him to build support within his party for a process some other prominent Islamists condemned as caving in unnecessarily to secularist pressure.

“[Ghannouchi] has members who are less reasonable,” Essebsi acknowledges. “I think that now he has gained control over things.”

Yet the differences within Ennahda persist. McCarthy cites several examples of dissension during January’s debates over constitutional amendments. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the most conservative Islamist MPs oppose democracy, he adds: “I think Ennahda regards democracy as a guarantee—a way to prevent another wave of repression, as we saw under Ben Ali in the 1990s and 2000s.”

With the Constitution’s passage seeming to mark at least a temporary détente between Islamists and secularists over questions of national identity, many Tunisians are hoping their politicians will now begin to address the social inequalities that sparked the uprising in the first place.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy